I have some friends. Not many, as I hate people and my aggressive brand of “don’t like to do stuff” generally means a lot of not doing stuff. Thing is, my friends know me and my “please don’t make me do stuff” policy so in order to get me to do what THEY want they usually have to bribe me with something I want. Like so, “Hey you know that movie you’re interested in? Well I can get you a screener and you can see it like pronto instead of later-o (what is the opposite of pronto?), BUT you have to do X with me right now.”
Which is how I ended up in Beastly over the weekend.
Why was Beastly even on the table? The friend with the hookup had to check it out for her job. Her bribe was very, very good and will pay off several months down the line but even then I stopped for a moment and thought, I’ve just seen The Roommate and I’m still scarred from Jonah Hex, and I Am Number Four didn’t magically make me whole again so I’m not sure I can handle another shitty movie without my brain severing itself from my body and using its stem to strangle me to death for abusing it in such a terrible way.
Of course I said yes. Free ticket to a shitty movie? I’m in. Can I come in my pajamas? (Answer: yes. And did.) So there we were, seeing Beastly, surprisingly, not the oldest people there (did not expect to see anyone over 11 in the audience). Also, I was surprised by the number of guys who were there, like grown men with beards who seemed actually kind of into being there. Either there’s a creepy contingent of fanboys for Vanessa Hudgens (High School Musical) or Alex “Pretty Face” Pettyfer (I Am Number Four) is a favorite with the gays. I called my Main Gay and asked if he knew who Pettyfer was and he didn’t so I suspect it’s the former, not the latter. Then the movie started and I laughed for ninety minutes straight.
Is Beastly good? No, of course not. But was it the steaming pile of horse shit the reviews lead me to believe? Surprisingly, no.
What Beastly was, was a harmless, fluffy, silly movie whose “romantic” inclinations extended as far as chaste kissing. Barring a couple of expletives, Beastly easily could have been PG. Probably should have been PG anyway and marked “totally harmless” in a parental guide. I don’t usually advocate selling crap to children because I think entertainment grossly underestimates how smart kids actually are, but that moment when girls begin to develop crushes and feel Tingling Down There is so tricky to navigate that I’m fine with this cotton candy crap representing romance to tweens. We spend so much time bemoaning the over-and-early-sexualizing of kids but then we hate on the tween movie calculated to be romantic without being sexy. We can’t have it both ways. Which is why I think my eyeballs ultimately did not commit suicide and explode in my skull. I kept repeating, This is perfectly fine for little girls throughout the movie.
Beastly is a modern take on Beauty and the Beast, adapted and directed by Daniel Barnz (Phoebe in Wonderland) from the Alex Flinn YA novel. Pettyfer stars as Kyle Kingston, the uber-egotistical son of a handsome, famous news anchor. Kyle’s introduction is so hilariously vain that I laughed so hard I almost cried. Do guys actually do push-ups and shit in their boxers in front of mirrors? Does that really happen? It does in Kyle’s world. In fact, I feel that the scene was less than because Pettyfer couldn’t make his pecs flex individually as he admired himself in the mirror. Kyle is intolerably self-involved, openly admitting in a campaign speech for Prettiest President that he’s only doing this for his college transcript. But then…I remembered that I joined student council for exactly the same reason and suddenly Kyle didn’t seem vain, he seemed honest.
And this is where Beastly begins to go off the rails (if you’re counting, we’re about five minutes into the movie). Kyle isn’t nearly bad enough. Yes, he’s obnoxious. Yes, he using a teacher with a crush to pad his grades and he’s participating in school events he doesn’t really care about just because it looks good to colleges, but really, most of us did stuff like that in high school. Who didn’t join a club or go for extra credit you didn’t really need just to add another check mark to your transcript? And then Kyle goes home after winning Hottest Student Body, and we see his super modern New York penthouse, which is decorated in a mirror theme (subtle set design, guys). Kyle’s primary caretaker is his Jamaican nanny, Zola (Lisa Gay Hamilton, veteran television actress), and his father (Peter Krause, Parenthood) is a jackass with a Bluetooth. I love that using a Bluetooth is the new filmic shorthand for “douche”.
Kyle’s dad is an aggressively awful father. Everything about his intro scene is calculated to make the audience hate him but it also shows why Kyle is the way he is. His dad is a looks-obsessed tool that has to be texted to take notice of his son. A lot of critics accused Pettyfer’s acting as being “wooden”. I won’t disagree that he seemed to struggle with his American accent, at times physically working to shape his words, and he definitely didn’t grasp expressing anger/frustration at levels less than “utter spaz”. But the scene with his dad shows a little bit of grace to Pettyfer’s abilities. When his father fails to take interest in Kyle winning Sexiest Senior you can actually see something die in Kyle’s eyes.
The mega-rich private Manhattan school Kyle attends throws a party celebrating his win as Most Popular Dude and Kyle uses it to get “revenge” on Kendra (Mary Kate Olsen, reminding us she once did something before she became part of a two-headed sea monster), the resident school witch. Because high school isn’t complete without sorcery. Kendra tried to sabotage Kyle’s campaign and he called her a “frankenskank” (totally saving that term for future use), then he invites her to the party to sit in the VIP section with him as an olive branch. Only once at the party, Kyle denies Kendra her ticket in (the only truly dick move he pulls—everything else is Standard High School Boy). Except this all happens while they’re standing in the middle of the dance floor. She’s already in? Kendra ends up cursing Kyle and by the end of the night he’s a freak himself, looking like a car crash survivor with a pretty awesome tree tattoo.
Problem number two: Kyle isn’t ugly enough. Maybe it’s that post-curse Kyle still has Handsome Kyle’s model-body, maybe it’s that his jaw and nose and cheekbones remain unchanged. Pettyfer’s pretty is too well preserved for Kyle to be truly ugly. In fact, when he returns to Rich Academy to beg Kendra to lift the curse, he’s basically got the best Halloween costume at the Halloween party. Kyle could go from King of Major Bucks High to King of Steampunk. Probably Kyle’s beast-form is so well-built to save Pettyfer’s heartthrob-in-training status but it hurts the movie.
Kyle’s horrible dad banishes him to Brooklyn with Zola and a blind tutor named Will (Neil Patrick Harris, convincingly blind). Naturally, Harris has all the best lines and is the most enjoyable aspect of Beastly. Without him, I might have actually resorted to trying to beat myself to death with my seat’s armrest as my It’s fine for tweens mantra died under the weight of Barnz’s directionless directing. Barnz has no clue how to stage an active scene—not even “action”, just “active” as any scene involving movement almost overcame his abilities—nor does he grasp “building tension” very well.
Kyle mopes in Brooklyn for most of the year. Zola and Will can’t seem to leave the house for some unknown reason. In the fairytale, the Prince’s servants are cursed along with him but in Beastly it’s never clear if Zola and Will are actually affected by the curse or if they’re just indulging Kyle’s epic sulk. During this sulk Kyle begins to fixate on Lindy (Hudgens), the last person he talked to before Kendra cursed him. She’s a scholarship student at Money High and just wants to go on the class trip to Macchu Picchu. Kyle is clearly taken with her lack of pretension and she’s clearly smitten with Kyle because that’s what the nice, shy girls in these stories do. They like the bad-but-secretly-good boys. Through a series of events so improbable and outlandish that I laughed until I actually did cry, Lindy ends up living at Kyle’s, except he tells her his name is Hunter (everyone at Spoiled Prep thinks Kyle is in rehab).
With time running out on his curse before he’s stuck a freak forever, Kyle begins a series of gambits to win Lindy’s affections. I’ll admit, this was pretty entertaining. The sheer disbelief on Kyle’s face as Lindy rejects an expensive handbag (Chanel?) is genuinely funny. So are Kyle’s efforts to build a greenhouse. Beastly is accidentally hilarious but there’s actual on-purpose funny stuff in there, too. Eventually Zola gets Kyle to start personalizing the gifts and Kyle begins gaining ground with Lindy, especially when Will FINALLY holds a tutoring session for the kids, even if Kyle has begged him to angle it so he looks smart. In another truly funny moment, Kyle finds out the piece of modern poetry he’s Googled for them to “learn” about (Frank O’Hara’s “Having a Coke with You”—major props for finding a way to slip this into a kids’ movie) happens to be one of Lindy’s favorites.
There’s a series of improbable events, Lindy’s dad OD’s and she rushes away to him just as Kyle thinks he is making some progress with her, only to end up relegated to “good friend status”. Convinced he’s lost his chance at redemption, Kyle goes home and ratchets up his sulk to new, inexplicable levels. In the end, of course, Kyle confronts Lindy, she says she loves him, he’s turned back into The Handsomest Person Ever, and Lindy finds out that Hunter was her secret crush Kyle all along.
You know what happened then? The audience cheered. And not like “woo clap clap” but like “WOO CLAP CLAP”. Even the dudes. So obviously I’m a horrible person for laughing throughout Beastly because my reaction to the ending was “thank god it’s over I’m never going to see tween movies again” but everyone else was cheering Kyle’s redemption. Beastly isn’t good but it’s not nearly as awful as I expected. At times it’s actually pretty cute. And it does a good job selling romance and “true beauty is on the inside” to little girls without being all sexy and whorey. It’s harmless. It misses out on charming due to lack of any real depth of feeling and it’s poorer for having a “beast” who is actually just a normal high school doofus and then is a pretty decent looking freak, but whatever. The kids loved it. And they didn’t learn how to sixty-nine from it so I think that’s a win.